Behind the Milk Scare, A Frightening Silence

Sunday, September 28, 2008; Page B05

China's latest food scandal has left four infants dead and thousands hospitalized after drinking baby formula milk laced with melamine, a type of plastic that made the formula seem richer in protein than it really was. Countries throughout Asia and Europe have pulled Chinese milk-based products -- yogurt, ice cream, even some cookies and crackers -- off their shelves. The World Health Organization and UNICEF issued a joint statement calling the "deliberate contamination" of foods intended for infants and young children "particularly deplorable." The scandal has shocked many in China, too. This blog post by a leading Chinese intellectual illustrates how much the scandal has dismayed many of her countrymen.

I need to write down slowly how I feel about the Baby Milk Powder Scandal. How horrible it is that more than 10,000 babies have been hospitalized and many more harmed by milk powder laced with melamine.

What can I say? What can we say? Am I waiting for other people to say what has not been said? Looking around, I find that many friends are as trapped in silence as I am. They are also tormented by speechlessness.

Are we too shocked to speak? Or have we already said what we should have said? Or is it because we can't find any words to respond to such a cruel reality? . . .

I have actually encountered similar situations many times. I want to tell you something terrible that I'd heard about but didn't do anything about. Whenever I think about it, I feel that I've participated in concealing something horrible.

It was during the spring festival of 2005. I met a cousin who lives in the countryside. She told me that the rice they grew that year was not edible because a deadly pesticide had been applied to the plants. Some pigs died after eating the chaff from the rice. So the farmers bought rice from elsewhere to eat -- and they sold the poisonous rice they grew to people in Shanghai.

My cousin didn't say whether her own pigs had been poisoned. She has a limited education and doesn't know much of the world outside her village. I am not sure whether she got it right when she said that the poisonous rice had been sold to Shanghai. But one thing was known for sure: the farmers bought rice to eat, and secretly sold their contaminated rice to others. And it's something that farmers around the area all knew about.

What could I do after I heard something like this? Where could I go to report the problem? I can't think of any official in this vast country who would patiently listen to me and try to address the problem. Most officials would probably regard me as insane if I went to talk to them. They would glance at me arrogantly from behind their desks. I don't think I could stand the humiliation for even a few minutes. Why should I seek this disgrace?

"There are all kinds of things like this happening in the country. There's nothing I can do about it," I said to myself, trying to appease my conscience.

How pitiful I am. I already know that my effort will be useless even before I take any action. Is there a devil who lives in our hearts and sneers at our actions all the time? His mission is to deprive us of the ability to respond, to smother our enthusiasm, and to paralyze our will to take action. I am caught in the same situation as my imaginary, impassive official. Both of us are controlled by a curse and have lost the ability to take appropriate action . . .

However, my humanity has been hurt. The damage is immeasurable. Trapped in this kind of silence and not able to do anything about it, I feel bad about myself. I almost feel that I've become a pile of [dung], or a slave who only knows work but not how to speak. I chat and joke with people around me, but I am not able to talk about the biggest bewilderment on my mind.

To speak, or not to speak, this is the question. This is a question that is hard for our judgment. But what we've lost is the ability to make basic moral judgment.

-- Cui Weiping

Cui Weiping teaches at the Beijing Film Academy. This blog post was translated by theChina Digital Times.